Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The James Gibson Family

Gibson family plats from a map of Mahoning County, 1860, Library of Congress

When I was dating the woman who is now my wife. She lived in Brownlee Woods while I was on the West side. I-680 ended at South Avenue when we first started dating. When the rest of it opened, I was able to get to her house in under 10 minutes! Until then, I often took shortcuts to avoid all the stoplights on South Avenue. Gibson Street to Roxbury to Zedaker to Midlothian got me there. I also remember playing Gibson Heights Presbyterian Church on East Dewey in our church softball league.

These places bear the name of another early Youngstown family, Captain James Gibson, and his descendants, who lived on the land through which Gibson Street passes. Captain James Gibson was born in 1740 on County Tyrone, Ireland, and came to the United States in 1760, settling in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The “Captain” came from his leadership of a ranger company guarding the frontier from neighboring native tribes. He fought in the Revolutionary War. In 1799 Gibson, his wife, and four sons came to Youngstown, staying by a spring that was eventually called Gibson Spring, near what is now Poland Avenue. They moved on to Warren for a couple weeks, but finding no desirable land, returned to the location, purchasing 289 1/4 acres from John Young in Great Lot 43 which ran south from the Mahoning River just east of South Avenue to the Youngstown border. They built a temporary log cabin while they worked to clear the heavily forested land to farm it. His wife Anna Belle was a charter member of First Presbyterian Church. (Source: Captain James Gibson and His Wife, Anna Belle and Their Descendants Pioneers of Youngstown, O.)

Samuel Gibson

James died in 1816 and Anna Belle in 1834. When Oak Hill Cemetery opened they were re-interred in that cemetery. Their son Robert Gibson, who had lived with them, continued to reside on the farm, eventually building his own home. Eventually two of his children, Samuel and John owned their own portions within the plat, inherited from their father. You can see their properties above on the 1860 map above. John on the southern most property and Samuel owned two connected properties. He worked on his parents farm while going to school, then taught school at the Salt Springs school, and then returned to farming.

Hon. William T. Gibson

One of Samuel’s sons, William T. Gibson also distinguished himself in Youngstown. Born in 1850, he attended Youngstown City schools, and then Western Reserve University, graduating in 1876. He went on to read law with Youngstown Judge Arrel, being admitted to the practice of law in 1878. He served as city solicitor from 1896 to 1899, then as Mahoning County prosecuting attorney. In 1903 he became Youngstown’s mayor. He was a senior partner in Gibson & Lowry, and president of the Youngstown Savings and Loan. (Source: “William T. Gibson,” 20th Century History of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens.

The family story of the Gibsons is a familiar one in Youngstown history. Early settlers become an established family and eventually pillars of the community and civic leaders. They bought and cleared the land and established prosperous farms. One (the fourth generation in the city) was even a Mayor of Youngstown. Remember that when you drive on Gibson or hear the name.

Review: Defending Middle-Earth

Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity, Patrick Curry. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Summary: A study of the enduring power of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, tracing it to both its counter to modernity and its genius as modern myth.

Many in the critical community have puzzled over the public acceptance and staying power of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Patrick Curry notes that Tolkien has been described as “paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and…irrelevant.” Curry believes the nature of the books account for their success. It is a myth about an earlier age of the earth drawn from both Norse and Anglo-Saxon material, fashioned into a truly unique place, not to be read allegorically, yet one that speaks into late modernity, a project more or less exhausted.

He describes the work as centered around three domains. The first is the social, centered around the Shire, where community, local government, and love of place dominate. There are many such places throughout Middle-Earth from Lothlorien to Fangorn forest to Gondor, all standing in contrast to the soulless industrial wasteland of Mordor. The social domain is nested within a second domain, an ecological or natural one of Middle-Earth. Everything, from the mountains and rivers to Tolkien’s beloved trees, pulses with life and the peoples of Middle-Earth live harmoniously within these domains–Elves in the forests, dwarves in the mountains and hobbits in the Shire, and the Ents shepherding their trees. Surrounding Middle-Earth is the Sea representing the spiritual–the ethical, the questions of death and life, the ultimate.

Curry’s exploration of the latter notes how Tolkien did not impose Christian theology by another name on his story, unlike the Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis. Oddly enough, Curry notes that Tolkien combines a polytheistic pantheon at war with evil with a kind of animism, that resacralizes nature. All this combines with Christian virtues of humility, courage, hospitality, and compassion drawing together a fellowship of the “differents.”

Curry proposes that a Middle-Earth with this character, these domains, speaks powerfully to modernity-weary readers, tired of big and bureaucratic states, alarmed by the exploitation of the planet, and groping for a spirituality that embraces all of life. But he believes it is also powerful, certainly in the English speaking world because Tolkien succeeded in his project of fashioning a contemporary myth, a story neither true nor false, but one that explains something of the origins and place and future of not only those in the story but that of the reader as well.

Curry’s discussion rings true for me in many ways. The Shire of the hobbits is the local membership of Wendell Berry’s Port William, calling us away from identity-less exurbia. The love of all nature, and especially the forests speaks into a land stripped of trees, seemingly destined for a Mordor-like wasteland. Then there is the surrounding sea, the reminder of lives answerable to something greater, destined for something beyond, longing for God knows what.

Finally the mythopoeic elements helps explain the power of this story for me, that only grows as I age–not merely the adventure but the hope and loss of which life consists. And there is the power of traveling with the Fellowship, the Nine who faced wonder and danger and sorry and strove to overcome. Having traveled so far, and through so many readings, we each face the question of what then shall we be and “what to do with the time that is given us.”

Review: Henri Nouwen & The Return of the Prodigal

Henri Nouwen & The Return of the Prodigal Son (Stories of Great Books), Gabrielle Earnshaw. Brewster: MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.

Summary: An account of the crisis, transformation and subsequent writing process behind Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Many of us have been deeply moved by reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen’s reflections on his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of “The Return of the Prodigal Son” address our loneliness, our “elder son” resentments, our need for forgiveness and to know we are loved. Nouwen invites us not only to be loved, but to love as the Father loves.

Gabrielle Earnshaw explores how Nouwen came to write this wonderful book, the response to it, and how the writing of it changed the last years of Nouwen’s life. Earnshaw is well-qualified for this task she is the founding archivist of the Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection at the University of St. Michael’s College and current Chief Archivist for the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust.

She traces the spiritual struggle of Nouwen to know he was loved that culminated in his collapse in front of a poster of Rembrandt’s painting and the series of life altering experiences that followed this initial encounter–the end of his work at Harvard, the extended meditation on the original painting in St. Petersburg, his call to L’Arche Daybreak, his strained relationship with Nathan Ball, breakdown, and recovery at the Homes for Growth.

It was during this time that he began to write about the painting and shared his writing with Sue Mosteller. Mosteller had invited him to L’Arche and stayed connected with him during his recovery. She affirmed the significance of claiming his sonship, but also challenged him to a further step that would prove transforming.

…I ask myself if the real call for you is the call to become the Father. Once the sons have made their unique passages are they not then ready to become like the Father, to become the Father? And truly Henri, aren’t you right there? Is that what this passage is all about? Isn’t this why you chose to come to Daybreak in the first place; because in your life journey you were more ready to be the Father and you knew somewhere in yourself that it was time to “put away the things of the son”?

With Mosteller’s help and wise counsel, he effects a reconciliation with Ball, with whom he shares leadership of L’Arche Daybreak. Earnshaw traces the difference in Nouwen after his return. She also recounts the writing process, work with Doubleday, his publisher, and the response to his book. It received little critical notice, despite pleas that his work was much like that of Madeleine L’Engle, reviewed in the New York Times. Sales grew slowly and steadily, fueled not by critical reception, but by word of mouth from readers. A paperback version further expanded circulation. Earnshaw even sets the book in the zeitgeist of the 1990’s.

Nouwen would live four more years after publication of Prodigal. He truly became father to the L’Arche community, not completely freed from his struggles, but growing into the father role. This was his most productive time of writing. His lifelong struggle with his sexuality continued, but his growing comfort as father allowed him the freedom to play a clown, and to care for the core members of the community. In his last years he became taken with the combination of freedom and safety in the trapeze act of the Flying Rodleighs. He even worked with them, but never had the chance to form his experiences into writing before his death from a heart attack in 1996.

Earnshaw writes both with scholarly care and deep insight into Nouwen’s journey of writing this book. One ordinarily would not think of an account of how a book was written as spiritually edifying. This was different because Earnshaw helps us enter into Nouwen’s journey with Rembrandt’s painting. She captures the “wounded healer” Nouwen, one who answered the vocation to become a father, even as he wrestled to believe in his belovedness. She traces the transforming process in his life, and the blessing he offered to the members of his community and thousands of readers. Reading this book not only points us to a classic. It points us to the Father whose hands rest on the prodigal’s shoulders and invites the elder son to share his joy.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Adults in the Room

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Remember when we were kids and we got in a quarrel because we both wanted the same crayons or toys, and an adult stepped in and helped us to figure out that we either had to share and work it out, or go to our rooms? Usually we figured out that some crayons or toys and being in the same room was better than no toys and our own rooms. When we were older, when we got into fights over a disputed call playing baseball or basketball, we eventually figured out that playing the game was more fun than continuing to argue or going home. We’d call a do-over, or flip a coin and get on with the game. We were learning to be the adults in the room when no adults were around.

Watching our political discourse, and the social media discourse around it. I find myself wondering where have all the adults gone? What I’ve seen over the last number of years is an escalating fight that has lost the sight that you need an opponent, an opposition, those who are on a different team to have a good game–that it is the game and not the fights that matter (unless you are talking about hockey). Of late, it seems that the objective is not merely winner take all and leave nothing on the table. It is winner subdue or wipe out all and be the last ones standing. Suddenly it is OK to show up in public buildings with assault weapons, destroy property, and threaten the lives of public servants and their families.

The game I’m talking about is our country–this troubled place of 330 million people drawn from all over the world, from every religious faith and none, living in rural, urban and suburban settings, black, white, brown, and more. Increasingly, the question may be asked, could the fabric of our union unravel, and what could that mean?

For so many years, I think we’ve thought, “it could never happen here.” Except that it has within our very short history. It was called the Civil War. Over 600,000 young men from the north and south died because inflammatory talk escalated from words to a contentious election, and shots fired.

As a Christian, the most troubling part of that history was that churches mirrored the divisions in American society. People who believed they worshiped the same God, read the same Bible and recited the same creed didn’t care that they were deeply divided from each other. Most churches, north and south, didn’t care that blacks also worshiped the same God.

It doesn’t appear to me terribly different today except that the vitriol comes via social media and competing news networks, rather than old fashioned newspapers.

It can happen here. Children who play with matches often don’t really understand that you can burn down the house until they burn down the house. Then there are those who don’t seem to care about the house as long as they are the ones wielding the matches.

There are so many different doomsday scenarios for how it could unravel. Anne Applebaum, in The Twilight of Democracy fears the rise of authoritarian government. In a place that appears to be unraveling, a strong leader who sets things in order, no matter what else they do, has an appeal. David French, in Divided We Fall (released yesterday), thinks we could be headed toward a bloodless secession as red states and blue states ideologically harden and the United States becomes two or more separate “countries.”

I find myself wondering at times that Octavia Butler in The Parable of the Sower might be more prescient. She portrays a dystopian United States of 2024, rife with disasters both ecological and political, and where street gangs rule (writing in 1993, she portrays a California increasingly ravaged by fire seasons).

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed is that when you listen to those doing the fighting, they all love the country and are deeply concerned about it. Granted, many of their concerns are different. What troubles me is that our binary, zero sum thinking that says you have to choose between caring for mothers and the unborn, that you have to choose whether to care for blacks or police, that you have to choose whether to care for business or God’s good creation, is leading to destroying the very place we love. Have we lost the creative imagination and skill at negotiation found at the intersection of both-and?

It’s time, and past time, for the adults in the room to step forward, and for those who should be adults to act like it. We cannot keep escalating our toxic discourse, including our toxic social media postings that are just kindling for the fire. Whether our future is authoritarian, or one of Balkanization, or civil war in our cities (which we have already tasted in some places), each signals the death of “the land that we love.” Each signals the triumph of the argument over the game.

I don’t know if it is too late at a national level for “adults in the room” to matter. All I know is that I want to work for solutions in terms of “we” rather than “us versus them” wherever I can. If someone has to be my enemy for me to be part of your party, I’m not interested. Perhaps it is quixotic to hope that there will ever be enough adults in the room to expect our political leadership to act this way. But that is just politics. There is so much more to life in this country than politics, which we’ve made into a kind of god. Perhaps the best thing at times is to dismiss this as childish and start looking for adults of integrity who will seek the common good, not as political messiahs, but as public servants.

All I know is to start with us, dear reader. Will you be an adult in the room? Will I? And who else can we get to join us?

What Brings a Reviewer Joy

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I seem to be getting these more often. Requests from an aspiring author to review their book. I just responded to one. I also interact a good deal with authors, publicists, and publishers. There are some things that bring joy to this task.

  1. When the author does their homework and looks at what I review and helps me identify why their book fits my interests. One of the best books I’ve reviewed from an author contact reflected this. She figured out I liked local authors and regional works in the vein of Wendell Berry’s fiction. In most other cases, I turn the author down.
  2. I love to review books from real friends when the book is a work of quality–well-written about things that matter, fiction or non-fiction. It is fun to bring recognition to their work.
  3. It is a joy when a publicist follows what you’ve reviewed and suggests books from their publishing house in a similar vein.
  4. On some days, it is a joy just to get an answer to a request for a review book. Some larger publishers are very good about this. Some small publishers that need to be good at this just aren’t.
  5. What all this gets at is that one likes to be treated with respect. I’ve done this for seven years, built an audience, put thought into my requests, providing information about my platform and interests in the book. In my case I do it for the love of books, and getting the word out about good ones.
  6. I like getting physical books. If the cover is striking or I’ve been looking forward to getting it, I’ll snap a picture of it and post it on social media. I can’t do that with e-books. On social media, a picture of the actual book just looks better and allows me to promote it more than once. I find it easier to review physical books as well.
  7. I don’t expect to be thanked by the author. Reviewing ethically is a bit of an arms-length task. But I do take joy when an author writes to say I represented their book well and accurately. I try hard to do that because I respect the work of writing and re-writing and re-re-writing that goes into a book. I will say that when I have a pleasurable interaction with an author whose work I’ve liked, I’m more inclined to review their next book.
  8. It is a pleasure to come across a book that is well-written and has a degree of originality–it isn’t a rehash of things you’ve read before with a different cover. It is a joy to come across a new author who does that. It doesn’t happen very often.
  9. Above all, I always enjoy learning that someone who has read one of my reviews acquired, read, and enjoyed the book, and shares with me what it meant to them.

Reviewing does involve a certain amount of work, from scanning catalogues and publications to identify books, responding to queries, actually reading the book (I always read it through, sometimes more than once), writing and editing the review, posting it (I post in multiple places with a reach of over 12,000–without shares), and interacting with comments, sometimes providing more information about the book. Mostly, I do it for the intrinsic satisfaction. But authors, publicists, publishers, and readers can greatly add to the joy, as they often do. Mostly, it just comes down to a little respect. Aretha was right.

Review: A Fatal Grace

A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2006.

Summary: An unliked but aspiring author comes to Three Pines and is murdered in front of a crowd at a curling match yet no one sees how it happened.

CC de Poitiers has just published a book, Be Calm, a mishmash philosophy of enlightenment through the suppression of emotion, symbolized by the color white. She hopes to launch a whole line of fashions and accessories around this idea. Yet for one maintaining control of emotion, she manages to make herself hateful to everyone around her–her lover and photographer Saul, her husband Richard Lyon, her daughter, Crie, and the people of Three Pines, where the family has purchased the old Hadley home.

She manages to disrupt the holiday cheer of the village, first by brutally silencing her daughter’s beautiful singing in church on Christmas eve, and then by dying in front of everyone at a traditional curling match following a holiday breakfast. Only it wasn’t a natural death. It was murder by electrocution, when she stood up to straighten a lawn chair askew. Yet none of the witnesses saw anything, and an electrocution of this sort was difficult to achieve, requiring a number of improbable factors to coincide. Who did this, and how, and why? Several items become key pieces of evidence–an ornament of the three pines with the letter L inscribed, a discarded videotape with one section distorted from repeated pauses, and an old pendant of a screaming eagle.

Gamache is called in, his second case in Three Pines. He had been reading an unsolved case file of a homeless vagrant woman who had been strangled in Montreal. Seemingly unrelated, Gamache and his team will discover the two cases are connected. Gamache will also discover that an earlier effort, the Arnot affair, to deal with corruption in the Surete is not over, that there are maneuverings going on to bring him down. One sign of this was the assignment of Agent Yvette Nichol to his team unrequested after her disastrous performance the last time she was in Three Pines. One compensation is a young detective, Robert Lemieux, who seems a quick study and fits in well with the team.

Some of the finest writing comes in the conversations of Gamache with Emilie Longpre, one of the “Three Graces” painted by Clara Morrow, with evidence of a fourth, missing Grace. The three include her, “Mother” Bea Meyer and Kaye Thompson, friends through life. Emilie is not “L,” whose son died young and was remembered by her for a signature violin piece he’d learned. She had been moved by Crie’s singing, and when she heard CC’s attack on her, was troubled by her failure to come to the unusual girl’s defense.

It’s not all conversation. There are drives through blinding blizzards, the panic of being trapped in a burning house, and a dramatic rescue. There are flashbacks, as Gamache and Jean Guy visit the old Hadley house, which figured in the terrifying ending of the first novel.

Of course there is the wonderful cast of Three Pines, Gabri and Olivier, Peter and Clara Morrow, and the curmudgeonly poet, Ruth Zardo, whose “beer walks” each day are finally explained. For the uninitiated, there is also an introduction to curling, and the high drama of “clearing the house,” which came at the very moment CC was electrocuted.

This was the second of Penny’s Gamache novels, good enough to win an Agatha Award in 2007. One revels in reading a work with no one-dimensional characters but real people with histories, hopes and secret and not-so-secret wounds. What a joy to glimpse the comfortable, companionable relationship of Reine-Marie and Armand, so healthy and “adult.” And despite the fact that it is the site of so many murders, Penny’s description of Three Pines makes it one of the favorite places in fiction where people would love to live. I know I would.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Mineral Ridge

Main Street in Mineral Ridge c. 1915

It is not even a village with its own post office any more. Officially, it is a Census Designated Place. Located along Rt. 46 between Austintown and Niles, as part of Weathersfield Township, many people may not realize what a significant role Mineral Ridge played in the rise of the iron industry in the Mahoning Valley, paving the way in turn for the steel industry.

The name gives a clue. Farmers who settled in the area knew there was coal in the ground. Some had their own small mines for heating and to sell. The coal and iron industry really took off however in the 1850’s when John Lewis, superintendent of the Mineral Ridge Coal Mines, discovered seams of particularly valuable ore, black band iron ore, running through the area. Between 1856 and 1858 Mineral Ridge was transformed from a sleepy little farming community to a boom town with a number of coal and iron ore companies connected David Tod’s mills in Brier Hill and other mills in Niles. The presence of soft coal, block coal and black band iron ore made Mineral Ridge a critical raw resource center for the Valley’s industry. The resulting iron was known as “American Scotch Pig” and “Warner’s Scotch Pig.”

Mineral Ridge map while it was still a village

By the 1880s, many of the mines were closing, though some continued into the 1900’s and were even mined during the Depression for heating. Mineral Ridge ceased to be a village in 1917, becoming unincorporated in February of that year. Nancy Messier, a blogger growing up in Mineral Ridge provides interesting accounts of what it was like to grow up there in the mid-twentieth century, including a list of Mineral Ridge High School graduates from 1881 to 1954, with graduation programs listing local businesses.

The farming history of the community is remembered by the Moss Ancestral Home, a brick salt box structure that was the home of the Moss Family from 1859 to 1899. The mining history is mainly remembered whenever there is a mine collapse. Like much of Mahoning and Trumbull County, not all of the mines have been mapped and sometimes subsidence occurs in locations not previously known of.

The area has not seen the drastic population declines of some areas. The 2000 population of 3,900 has declined slightly to 3,783 in 2020. While Mineral Ridge no longer has a post office, as of the summer of 2020 it has a Post Office Pub. According to a Business Journal story, three local residents, all area business owners, recognized the lack of a family-oriented dining establishment in Mineral Ridge. They built a new restaurant on the site of the old post office, serving an “Americana menu–affordable family dinners with Italian, Irish and Greek influences.” The three owners hope that word will get out across the Valley.

Mineral Ridge played an important role in the Valley’s industrial history. The minerals from which the area gets its name and the workforce they attracted is worth remembering. The Mineral Ridge Historical Society is a local organization formed to preserve and promote the area’s history. Perhaps the next time you are driving on Rt. 46 between Austintown and Niles, you might take some time to notice the place that played such an important part in the Valley’s story.

Review: Enhancing Christian Life

Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community, Brad D. Strawn and Warren S. Brown. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: The authors propose that as persons we are embodied and embedded in particular contexts, but also that extended cognition expands our capacities as we engage our physical and social worlds, with implications for the importance of Christian community.

The authors begin this work by reminded us of the African-American women who served as human computers during NASA’s space projects. Their calculations extended the cognitive capacities of the flight engineers and scientists. The authors argue that our cognitive capacities are not merely a function of our own intellectual achievements but also the social and physical context in which we are embedded as embodied creatures.

An important part of this argument that the authors discuss early in the book has to do with our assumptions about the mind-body relationship. They contend that the philosophical and Christian assumption of mind-body dualism has been problem in directing the focus of spirituality inwardly, ignoring the embodied social context in which we live in the Christian community. Extended cognition recognizes that our embodied relationships with people and the physical environment extend our minds beyond our bodies and enhance our Christian life beyond an inward and private focus.

They explore various ways extended cognition works to nurture “super-sized intelligence” from our families to meetings to psychotherapy and finally the church. They observe that even the seemingly personal spiritual disciplines connect us to the life of the community, our shared faith and commitments. Our praying for others may be understood as believing for them, enhancing one another’s lives as we pray, learn, and act with each other. The stories and traditions of the Christian faith are “mental wikis,” that enhance our abilities to respond to various situations in our lives.

What is compelling about this proposal is that it shifts the locus of our lives from inward private experience to our shared life in the embodied Christian community. What is controversial about this proposal is the non-dualistic assumptions behind it. The authors exchange the term, “Christian life,” for “spiritual life.” What we call “mind,” “spirit,” or “soul” are simply perceptions of neuro-physical processes. Rather than defend this proposal, the authors critique the spirituality that has developed from dualism. Both defense of these ideas, and consideration of their theological implications need to be considered. While not central to this work, one question that arises is that of the intermediate state, our fate between our deaths and the resurrection. If, when we die, all of who we are ceases to exist, then in what sense are we “with the Lord”?

More pertinent to this project is the question of how we engage with God. The discussion of extended cognition mentions a number of other physical beings and objects. While prayer is mentioned, it is spoken of as primarily for others. How does extended cognition work with a being who is defined as “spirit”?

Also, while there is a privatistic spirituality that may be justly critiqued, this seemed to me to be a bit of a straw man. One may think of many examples of dualists who combine deeply inward lives with communal engagement. Henri Nouwen, for one, comes to mind.

Still, whether one accepts the premises of non-dualism or not, the idea of extended cognition, and how our communal life enhances all of us as Christians is worth considering. It is a valuable corrective to a “solitary man” spirituality (my favorite type in my worst moments). It “extends” our biblical understanding of how our lives are interdependent, how deeply we need each other to become all Christ intends us to be.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?

Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?, Antipas L. Harris. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores and answers the title question, showing the misreading of scripture and the affirmation of diverse cultures in scripture.

“Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?” This question has been asked and the idea asserted by followers of the Nation of Islam, the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, and the Five Percent Nation, among others. It is a question facing not only Blacks, but also other peoples of color. Antipas L. Harris, the president and dean of the Jakes Divinity School affirms not only the rich heritage of the Black Church but also demonstrates that this assertion seriously misreads the Bible and its affirmation of diverse cultures.

First, though, he shows the seriousness of the challenge. He notes the departure from the church of social justice-minded millenials as they have witnessed evangelical embrace of conservative politics and pushback against peaceful protests, often opposing the affirmation that Black lives matter. He observes the rising interest in alternative religious groups. He pinpoints the need for the church to address the issue of identity. Does Jesus care about people of color? What does the call to share in the holiness of Jesus mean for one’s identity?

He observes how our reading of scripture has been dominated by a white, Eurocentric interpretation when the Bible arises in a very different culture and context and needs to be interpreted based on that context. He contends that the white Jesus of Hollywood is not the darker skinned Jesus of the Near East. Within the New Testament, Christianity spread to Ethiopia and North Africa. The gospel writer Mark was from Cyrene, in northeast Libya. From Genesis to the New Testament, there was a good deal of ethnic mixing, including in the lineage of Jesus with Rahab the Canaanite, Ruth, the Moabite, and Bathsheba whose husband was a Hittite. He also gives the lie to the curse of Ham being upon Blacks and justifying slavery.

He invites us to read the gospels through dark lenses, to consider how the both the jubilee message of Jesus and his sufferings resonated with former slaves and those who faced the lynching tree. He concludes with inviting us to see the colorful Bible, and to take this message to the streets, to partner with parachurch organizations (PCO’s) to reach disaffected youth, and that Christian leaders must focus on the humility of Jesus and “redeem the faith from perceptions that it’s no more than a mechanism of power in the hands of good ol’ boys.”

Each chapter concludes with a brief “Living it Out” reflection. A strength of this book is that it distills the best of good scholarship to answer the charge that Christianity is the white man’s religion.” It is a good book to read with someone asking the question. Yet this is far from a sterile argument. Harris invites each of us, black or white, to read the Bible with new glasses, to see how God extends his love across diverse peoples and cultures and that the message of the Bible is good news for people of every color. And he invites us to allow that reading to change us.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Rostnikov’s Vacation

Rostnikov’s Vacation (Porfiry Rostnikov #7), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2012.

Summary: Rostnikov, on vacation in Yalta, learns that the death of a fellow investigator on vacation was murder, and that top investigators throughout Moscow are being sent on vacation at the time of a major political rally.

Porfiry Rostnikov is on vacation in Yalta. Rather, he was sent on vacation. He accepts it because it is a chance for recuperation of his wife, Sarah, from brain surgery. He meets another investigator, Georgi Vasilievich, has pleasant conversations with him in the evenings, until Vasilievich turns up dead from an apparent heart attack, only it turns out to be murder. The signs show that his killers inflicted painful interrogation first, and searched his room.

Meanwhile, his assistant Emil Karpo is investigating the murder of an East German, until he is also ordered on vacation. He stretches his departure to finish his investigation while the others on the team pursue a band of computer thieves preying on Jewish computer specialists, resulting in Sasha Tkach discovering he is all too human, failing his partner Zelach, who winds up in the hospital. He ends up joining Karpo.

What is it Vasilievich had discovered? What connection did this have with all the top investigators around Moscow being sent on vacation? Who was doing this and why, in a Moscow caught in a power struggle between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin? And why does all this coincide with a major political rally?

You probably have a sense of where this is going. That’s what made this diverting rather than riveting. You want to see how Rostnikov and his team figure out what’s going on. There are predictable instances of things being not as they seem. Perhaps one of the reasons Kaminsky sends Rostnikov on vacation is it offers a chance to develop other characters on the team–Tkach, Karpo, and even Zelach.

This was not the most outstanding in the series. Kaminsky develops Rostnikov’s team, explores the labyrinthine maneuverings of the Kremlin with an engaging enough plot to hold your interest. Sometimes, that’s all a book needs to do.